Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between—Gallery Views

Gallery views of The Costume Institute's spring 2017 exhibition, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, narrated by exhibition curator Andrew Bolton.

The Costume Institute's spring 2017 exhibition examines the work of Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, known for her avant-garde designs and ability to challenge conventional notions of beauty, good taste, and fashionability. The thematic show features approximately 140 examples of Kawakubo's womenswear for Comme des Garçons dating from the early 1980s to her most recent collection.

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Andrew Bolton: Rei Kawakubo is the first living designer we've displayed in a monographic exhibition since Saint Laurent in 1983.

She doesn't want one grand narrative to be imposed on her work, so the actual display itself is presented as an artistic intervention. It's maze-like, almost like a playground. You're encouraged to experience it at your own pace, in your own route.

When you first walk into the gallery, you'll see red ensembles from three different collections: "Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body," "Invisible Clothes," and "Two Dimensions." They're three expressions of how Rei blurs the boundaries between the body and dress.

There's eight overarching themes, or dichotomies, in the exhibition.

The first dichotomy is a section called Design/Not Design, a process-driven category that looks at Rei's modes of expression: the idea of the unfinished, the idea of asymmetry, the idea of elimination, and the technical leitmotifs in her work—notions of fusion, notions of juxtaposition.

Fashion/Anti-Fashion looks at her early work from the 1980s, when she began showing in Paris. It was oversized, asymmetric. Black became the color associated with her. It was so revolutionary. All of the questions that she raises every season about identity and beauty and femininity can be located in her early work from the 1980s.

So the Model/Multiple looks at one particular collection, "Abstract Excellence," which was a collection of 34 skirts. The illusion is of uniformity and the idea of one skirt, but every single skirt was different.

We have one section in the exhibition called High/Low that's really about street style, through two particular collections: "Motorbike Ballerina" and "Bad Taste." Rei described "Motorbike Ballerina" as Harley Davidson meets Margot Fonteyn. It's a collection that combined tutus with biker jackets, so, again, fusing two types of garments, but also conflating notions of elite and popular culture. In her collection "Bad Taste," she conflates both punk and fetish styles into one garment using seemingly cheap materials like polyester.

Then we have a section called Then/Now, looking at Rei's approach to time and temporality. Rei consistently argues that she doesn't look back, so her engagement with history is a constant rejection and redefinition of it. The garments in Then/Now look at her engagement with particular historical garments. She has an affinity to the 19th century, in particular the overblown silhouettes created by crinolines and bustles. Part of that section is also looking at one's own temporal progression through life, traditionally associated with the rites of birth, marriage, death.

Self/Other looks at the idea of hybrid identities, and within Self/Other there's three subsections: Child/Adult, Male/Female, and East/West. In East/West, Rei is using both eastern traditions with western traditions of clothing, tailoring and draping combined in one ensemble. Within the Male/Female category she'll fuse together two garments that are traditionally associated with either sex, either a skirt or trousers, which she'll morph into one ensemble. Her "2D" collection bridged the gap between Child/Adult. Usually made out of a felt type of material, it was all about age-appropriate dressing and this idea of playfulness.

We have a section called Object/Subject, which is more about hybrid bodies, where the dress and the body becomes one. One of her most radical collections, even to this day, was her 1997 collection "Dress Meets Body–Body Meets Dress." It included padded structures made out of goose down feathers that completely disfigured the body, so it was a celebration of deformity. What she was challenging were these normative conventions of beauty. It still stands out as one of the most provocative collections, more so because often it was done in very childlike and sweet bubblegum-pink gingham.

The final section in the exhibition is a section called Clothes/Not Clothes. It focuses mainly on her last eight collections, which Rei feels are the result of this radical rupture in her design process in spring 2014, when she began to see fashion as objects on the body. It's more akin to conceptual art or performance art; it wasn't really about wearability. Prior to that, her clothing was always viable as clothing. So she still doesn't define herself as an artist, but she's been forced to enter the debate of art and fashion.

What we always try to do in our exhibitions is to encourage people to think differently about the boundaries of fashion. I think people will have to work hard. The design itself is challenging and the objects contained therein are also challenging, but I think people will come away from the exhibition rethinking the art of the in-between.

Rei is this figure who is about originality. Every single season she reinvents herself and reinvents fashion.

Director and Producer: Kate Farrell
Editors: Dia Felix, Sarah Cowan
Jib and Camera Operator: Kelly Richardson
Lighting Designer: Ned Hallick
Gaffers: Foster McLaughlin, Christopher Yurnet
Production Assistants: Kaelan Burkett, Stephanie Wuertz
Music: Austin Fisher

© 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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